Romney Bay is extraordinary. Here you will find Prospect Cottage Garden at Dungeness, the UK’s only desert, huge concrete sound mirrors, two nuclear power stations, beautiful beaches and birds. So many birds.
PROSPECT COTTAGE GARDEN DUNGENESS
When I was girl Derek Jarman was famous for making films such as Jubilee and Carvaggio. Dungeness was famous for its nuclear power stations and a small gauge railway. Now more than twenty years after his death Jarman has morphed into a renowned gardener. Dungeness still has the power station and the railway. But say where you are headed. Most people will ask if you are headed to the Derek Jarman garden Dungeness.
When Derek Jarman first came to Dungeness he noticed that some plants thrived naturally and he encouraged them. Sea Kale and Wild Carrot abound. Every gardener itches to try and get new things to grow in their. He discovered that California Poppies, Sempervivum, Lavender and Cistus all thrived on the poor stony salt lashed soil. The garden is unusual in that it has no boundaries, slowly the natural scatter of gorse bushes and sea kale gives way to a denser more ornamented planting.
Prospect Cottage remains private and the garden is not formally open to the public, there are no opening times! However there are no boundaries and visitors wander around the plantings as they do the rest of gravel expanse. Bear in mind that Prospect Cottage is a private house and treat both house and garden respectfully.
Did you know that to be a desert an area has to have an average of under 25 centimetres of rain a year. Dungeness has 24.6cm making it the UK’s only desert. Not only that the peninsula has 2,000 hectares of shingle, making it the largest area of vegetated shingle in Europe. Millions of flint pebbles have gathered on the headland, arranging themselves into ridges with little pebbles at the bottom. It is in dips of the ridges that a few hardy species grow, giving the area a stripy appearance.
NUCLEAR POWER STATIONS
Not on everybody’s list of things to see and not the place to visit on the spur of the moment. There two nuclear power stations here, Dungeness A and B. A no longer generates power but B does. There is a visitor centre which explains the working of the nuclear reactor or for the really keen a guided tour. You need to book well in advance for the tour in order for all the necessary security checks to be made. Mobile phones and cameras are no allowed on the tour.
Have you ever heard of a concrete ear before? Just a short skip across the gravel you can see three such things at Greatstone. Well not strictly ears, more technically sound mirrors, but straight out of science fiction all the same. Constructed between 1928 and 1930 they were designed to pick up the sound of approaching aircraft and act as an early warning system. They could detect planes up to 24 miles away but were never used in anger as Radar was discovered and overtook the concrete monoliths. There are only a few other sound mirrors around England but you can only see three different designs together here.
ROMNEY BAY BEACHES
Romney Bay has four beaches, Dungeness, Greatstone, Littlestone and Dymchurch. Greatstone and Dymchurch have great expanses of sand exposed at low tide, perfect for making sandcastles. Dungeness is shingle and perfect for bird watching. Littlestone is gravel again and good for bracing walks whilst searching for hagstones. You know hagstones, stones with holes that go right through them! We love wandering along a shingle beach, take a look at the fruits of our beach combing at Cley next the Sea.
Just off Littlestone beach you can see an oblong shape. This is a Phoenix Caisson intended to be used in constructing a Mulberry Harbour as part of the D-Day landings. The equipment needed to construct the harbours was stored in the Romney area prior to the invasion and when the time came this particular piece could not be re-floated: it has stayed put ever since and is now a scheduled historic monument.
ROMNEY, HYTHE AND DYMCHURCH RAILWAY
Connecting all these places is an excellent narrow gauge railway which runs between Hythe and Dungeness. Tiny carriages, grown ups really have fold up small to get in, are pulled by a stream engine. There are many different ticket permutations but a family rover ticket, which enables you to get on and off as many times as you want costs £49.50.
BIRD WATCHING AT DUNGENESS
Dungeness is a birdwatchers paradise. There is a vast RSPB reserve with visitor centre, café and a car park, as well as the hides to watch the birds from. RSPB members get in free and it is £5 for everyone else. You don’t need to go to the reserve to see birds, Smew, Common Tern and more regular birds can be seen wheeling around all over the area.
WHERE TO EAT IN ROMNEY BAY
Fish is the thing to eat here. We selected the Dungeness Fish Hut Snack Shack. It is a trailer selling baps and wraps filled with fish and crabs caught by their own boat. I had a crab wrap with thai dressing washed down with a cup of tea and it was excellent, Mr CW a lemon sole fishfinger bap which was eaten with quiet relish. If you prefer to sit inside, the Pilot Inn does a roaring trade in fish and chips but gets very and only takes bookings for parties of eight or more. So get there early or be prepared to wait!
WHERE TO STAY IN ROMNEY BAY
We stayed at the Romney Bay House Hotel which is right on the seafront at Littlestone and has amazing views. The hotel is housed in a rather glamorous building that was designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis who was the creator of Portmerion in Wales and was built for Hedda Hopper the Hollywood actress and journalist. We ate the hotel and had the most delicious lamb for which Romney Marsh immediately behind the hotel is famous.
When I first went to Dungeness I was really excited about the crabs. As a Norfolk girl I was sure that they would not be a patch on the Cromer Crab but was willing to compare. I soon discovered that your Dungeness Crab hails from the Dungeness spit which is in Washington State and has nothing to do with Kent. I share this here, so that nobody will make a fool of themselves!